San Antonio Symphony,
Speaking French like a native
November 10, 2012
The Pyrenees mountain range
between Spain and France is rather like the Rio Grande -- a
natural boundary often breached, a wall punctured by doors.
The San Antonio Symphony’s concert of Nov. 9,
ravishingly performed under music director Sebastian
Lang-Lessing, explored the back-and-forth of musical
cultures across the Pyrenees through the French composer
Maurice Ravel’s Spanish-inflected orchestral showpieces
“Rapsodie espagnole” and “Bolero” and the Spanish composer
Manuel de Falla’s French-influenced “Nights in the Gardens
of Spain,” with the young Croatian pianist Martina Filjak.
Purely French was Claude Debussy’s set of three orchestral
Nocturnes, with the Sirens’ beckoning ahhhs nicely vocalized
by the women of the Mastersingers chorus.
“Nights in the Gardens of Spain” is an enchanting work that
is too seldom performed. It requires a pianist of
considerable ability, but the solo line is less the main
course than a brilliant garnish to the gorgeous orchestral
score. Major pianists tend to prefer more heroic roles,
though the work has had some towering exponents, notably
Alicia de Larrocha and Robert Casadesus. Ms. Filjak did a
fine job, effectively negotiating both her music’s lyricism
and its flamenco-dance percussiveness.
The most remarkable aspect of the concert was Mr.
Lang-Lessing’s total mastery of the sound universe of Ravel
and Debussy -- the distinctive inner pulse, the eroticism,
the layered transparency, the clarity of the textures,
achieved through meticulous orchestral balances (and, of
course, top-drawer playing from the orchestra). It is almost
a law of nature, if not a codicil to the Treaty of
Versailles, that only French conductors can get all of it
right, but you’d think the German Mr. Lang-Lessing had been
to the manière born.
It probably helped that he’d spent much of his early career
in France, as music director of the Opéra National de
Lorraine and the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique in Nancy.
His extensive experience as an opera conductor also
doubtless contributed to the dramatic astuteness of these
performances, not only in bold coups de théâtre
but in the pacing and shaping of whole movements.
Mr. Lang-Lessing has been
fully at the helm of this orchestra for less than two years,
but his ambitions for its sound are already coming to
fruition. In this concert the strings achieved a silken
transparency and luxurious surface beyond anything I’ve
heard before from this orchestra; in the Falla, the cellos
produced a singing line so beautiful it could make you weep.
The woodwinds were consistently elegant, the brass only a
shade less so.
"Bolero" was the music for a provocative segment of a
wonderful 1976 Italian animated feature film, "Allegro non
troppo," by Bruno Bozzetto. Click
here to see a clip on
brought forth excellent solo work from all corners of the
orchestra and from the center, where acting principal
percussionist Riely Francis tirelessly maintained the bolero
dance rhythm that holds the whole piece together. Especially
agreeable contributions came from principal bassoon Sharon
Kuster, principal trombone Amanda Davidson and principal
clarinet Ilya Shterenberg.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of Tal Perkes, who
was noted for his lustrous tone in his 18 years as the
orchestra’s principal flute. Sitting immediately to his left
during those 18 years was principal oboe Mark Ackerman, who
delivered touching reminiscences of his friend and